At one evangelical college in Santa Barbara, California, a small group of faculty and staff supporting presidential candidate Barack Obama are preparing for challenging conversations in their community as they look ahead to the fall semester.
Several faculty and staff members of Westmont College hosted an "Evangelicals for Obama" meeting on June 28 to foster "a conversation about how evangelicals are participating and finding their way in the Obama campaign." The event, open to those of all faiths and political affiliations, drew a group of about 15 people -- mostly affiliated with Westmont -- and began with a viewing of Obama's 2006 "Call to Renewal" speech that was attacked by evangelical leader James Dobson last week.
Elena Yee, Director of Intercultural Programs at Westmont and a co-host for the event, told the group that she was so taken with the way Obama talked about his faith in The Audacity of Hope that when he announced his candidacy for president, she decided to take a closer look at his policies.
"It was the faith aspect that drew me in right from the beginning," said Yee.
Obama's potential to win evangelical votes -- and his campaign's aggressive outreach to evangelical communities -- has been well documented by the media in recent weeks. For some evangelicals, Obama's faith background and his comfort with religious language and rhetoric have served to increase his appeal. Others think Obama has not given them enough specifics on why, as Christians, they should support him.
"I still have some questions about what his end values are, what drives him," said Edd Noell, an economics professor at Westmont and a registered Republican. Like a majority of white evangelicals, Noell voted for Bush in both 2000 and 2004. This year, Noell is unsure where his vote will land.
"I'm open to hearing more on why Christians are attracted to Obama," he said. "Is it that they think he's going to achieve more of a Christian purpose in office? Is it that he's going to act consistently with evangelical values?"
Though he posed those same questions to those in attendance at the "Evangelicals for Obama" meeting on Saturday, the discussion did not provide clear answers for Noell, highlighting the difficulties faced by evangelicals in articulating a common vision for how faith ought to intersect with public life.
"To me, the most open question that came from [Obama's 2006 speech] is his claim that while a person of faith might be motivated by their faith to take particular positions in the political arena, once they move into the public arena, they have to make their case on grounds that are shared by all," said Chris Hoeckley, a philosophy professor. "That's a vision I share, but I'm not sure it's obviously true. I can imagine people not sharing it and be reasonable in not sharing it."
Complex issues of faith and politics -- and the place of evangelicals within those issues -- will undoubtedly resurface among faculty, staff, and students at Westmont College as the elections draw closer. Cheri Larsen Hoeckley, a co-host of the meeting and a professor of English at the college, says that any additional "Evangelicals for Obama" meetings will serve to prepare faculty members for conversations with their students in the fall. She plans to organize town-hall type meetings on this subject during the school year to allow for candid dialogue between members of the Westmont community.
Those conversations promise to be highly charged, especially since Westmont students tend to come into the school with a much more conservative outlook.
"They tend to come out of homes that are Republican," said Jeremy Martin, a recent graduate of Westmont College. "They may be limited in their world experience, and so a lot of them might vote more conservatively. And many of them have been taught, vote Republican. Christians vote Republican."
It remains to be seen if Obama's widely noted appeal to young voters will hold true for young evangelicals. While issues of concern to young evangelicals have broadened to include things like economic justice and climate change, the next generation of evangelicals still hold conservative views on the traditional Christian right issues of abortion and same-sex marriage. The challenge for these young evangelicals, then, is to navigate the tensions between these issues, weighing them against one another to see which issue -- if any -- will trump the others as they head to the polls.
Martin, a young evangelical whose number one issue is foreign policy, says he would consider voting for both McCain and Obama. "But if we have the opportunity for a black president, then let's go for it," he said. "Let's not just stay with what's happened, just because it feels comfortable."
Martin will be voting for Obama in the fall.